Democratic gubernatorial candidate and former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, left, gestures as his Republican challenger, Glenn Youngkin, looks on during their debate on Thursday, September 16, 2021.
CNN  — 

Virginia gubernatorial candidates Terry McAuliffe and Glenn Youngkin sparred on Thursday over what each would do in the fight against the coronavirus, revealing a significant divide between the Democrat’s backing of vaccine mandates and the Republican’s argument that vaccination is a personal choice.

The fight over measures to combat Covid-19 was the focus of the first gubernatorial debate from the outset of the contest, with both candidates attempting to go on offense on the issue during the event hosted by Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, Virginia.

Youngkin argued that while he personally supports the Covid vaccine and wants everyone to get the shot, he believes “that individuals should be allowed to make that decision on their own.” He also pushed for McAuliffe to join him in taping a public service announcement to “encourage all the Virginians to get the vaccine.”

Pressed on whether he, as governor, would join his Republican colleagues and challenge President Joe Biden’s recent vaccine mandates, Youngkin did not give a direct “yes” or “no” answer, but said, “I don’t believe that President Biden has the authority to dictate to everyone that we have … to get the vaccine.” Biden announced earlier this month a series of new vaccine rules on federal workers, large employers and health care staff.

McAuliffe, a former governor of Virginia, fired back, calling Youngkin anti-vaccine and saying that he, as governor, would back up employers who mandate vaccines and would call for such mandates for people working in health care and in most education settings and for those pursuing higher education. The Democrat also said, after being pressed by moderator Susan Page, that he would support adding the Covid vaccine to those required for students older than 12, since the US Food and Drug Administration has authorized use of the vaccine for 12- to 15-year-olds.

“I am for requiring, mandate vaccinations. He’s not,” said McAuliffe, who is running for a second stint in office in a commonwealth that bars governors from serving successive terms. “He wants to do PSAs. PSAs aren’t going to get you anything. I want everybody to be vaccinated here in the commonwealth of Virginia.”

Youngkin responded to the barb by saying, “My position on the vaccine has been very clear. I absolutely encourage all Virginians to get the vaccine.”

McAuliffe jumped back in: “He is not requiring vaccinations. That is the difference between the two of us. Asking to do a PSA is a political stunt. … Who cares about PSAs? Half the people wouldn’t know who you are on TV.”

McAuliffe’s campaign is also putting money behind this message, running a statewide TV ad this week featuring a doctor calling out Youngkin for opposing certain vaccine and masking mandates.

A recent CNN poll found that Americans have grown more supportive of coronavirus vaccine mandates for workers, students and in everyday public life, with specific support for requiring vaccinations for office workers returning to the workplace (54%), students attending in-person classes (55%) and patrons attending sporting events or concerts (55%).

The fight to stop the spread of the coronavirus has become one of the most salient political issues for Democrats right now, with many Republicans pushing back against any vaccination mandates.

The Democratic strategy to focus on the coronavirus and mandating the vaccine has been buttressed by the recent failed recall of California Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, who defeated the attempted ouster by running primarily on the strict coronavirus measures he put in place while the state’s top executive and attacking his primary Republican opponent, Larry Elder, for saying he would roll back those coronavirus actions.

A primary lesson Democrats have taken away from Newsom’s easy win is that pledging to aggressively fight the coronavirus pandemic, including by mandating vaccines in certain settings, is good politics, especially with the Democratic base and independent voters who are concerned about the spreading Delta variant.

That is why McAuliffe returned to the issue throughout the debate, at one point attacking Youngkin’s pledge to do certain things on his first day in office by blithely saying, “His day one plan would be to unleash Covid.”

The issue, though, was not the only one to split the candidates during the debate, with each taking on the topics of abortion rights, Virginia’s economy and election integrity.

Both candidates pledged that they would accept the results of the gubernatorial election, even if the other won. And Youngkin said he doesn’t “believe there’s been significant fraud in Virginia elections” and that he did not agree with former President Donald Trump’s attacks on the Virginia voting system.

“I think we’re going to have a clean, fair election and I fully expect to win,” Youngkin said.

Even still, McAuliffe looked to tie Youngkin to Trump throughout the night, calling the gubernatorial candidate a “Trump wannabe” who has been endorsed by the former President and is “following all Trump’s policies.”

On abortion, Youngkin said he would “not sign the Texas bill” that bans most abortions after as early as six weeks into pregnancy, calling the law “unworkable and confusing” and noting it doesn’t contain the exceptions he supports. The Texas law does not include exceptions for rape or incest, although there is an exemption for “medical emergencies.”

But after being pressed by the moderator on whether he would support a similar law that barred abortions just after a fetal heartbeat is detected – which is often before a woman knows that she is pregnant – and included the exceptions he supports, Youngkin said, “I do believe that a pain threshold bill would be appropriate.”

McAuliffe, meanwhile, said he would support “enshrining Roe v. Wade in the Virginia Constitution” and pledged to stand up to abortion laws like the one in Texas.

Youngkin criticized McAuliffe’s record and positions on crime and policing, claiming the Democrat would end so-called qualified immunity, civil lawsuit protections currently afforded to police officers. Progressive activists have argued that qualified immunity has been abused and shields police officers from punishment for misconduct, particularly in cases of police brutality toward minorities.

“We’re going to protect qualified immunity, and my opponent is going to get rid of it,” Youngkin said.

Asked by a moderator if he would end qualified immunity, McAuliffe said, “No, I would not end it.”

Youngkin accused McAuliffe of flipping his position from the one he had held during the Democratic primary. In an April statement from McAuliffe’s campaign, spokesman Jake Rubenstein said the candidate supported ending “policies like qualified immunity that can prevent accountability when heinous acts are committed against Virginians.”